City Living

Proposed U-District Square could revitalize neighborhood by Daniel Rubens

City Living - Proposed U-District Square Could Revitalize Neighborhood

by Daniel Rubens - December 12, 2013

By the time the underground University District light-rail station opens in 2016, residents and community leaders are hoping that the neighborhood will be a thriving and bustling retail center, concentrated around a plaza just above the station.

It is all part of Sound Transit’s plan to expand the light-rail system to North Seattle, with stops being constructed from Husky Stadium to Northgate. There are future plans to extend the system east as well, into Bellevue and Mercer Island.

The University District station will be at Northeast 43rd Street and Brooklyn Avenue Northeast. Many hope the presence of a public square will revitalize the district.

“We’ve done a lot of visioning, and I think 43rd is going to become a more active and engaged street as pedestrians walk from the station to the campus,” said Louise Little, secretary and treasurer of the U-District Chamber of Commerce. “I also think there is going to be more residential density, apartments, condos and more family-type housing as well, and our urban plan encompasses all of that.”

While the plan for the plaza itself has not yet been approved by the City Council, construction has already begun on the light-rail station. There are still hurdles to clear and decisions to be made about what will be put above the underground station, but those decisions will be made in the next year. 

A team vision

The revitalization plan consists of five aspects of the University District that group leaders hope will turn the neighborhood into a commercial and residential center. This plan begins with the establishment of a new leadership organization that will focus on strengthening the community.

After the new year, the neighborhood’s chamber will dissolve into a new group called the University District Partnership (UDP). As the UDP grows, there will be a transition period in which the group will work to finalize the plan for the plaza, which will be heard by the City Council in May.

UDP project manager Brian Scott, a consultant on the greater project, said that what has struck him about this process has been the teamwork from all sides.

“I’ve been doing downtown and commercial revitalization for over 30 years, and I have never seen a community come together with as much consensus toward a vibrant, diverse and innovative district,” he said.

In addition to the UDP, the other four tenants of the revitalization process include the development of “European-style” alleyways, a clear design plan, a network of community services and the light-rail station, which is estimated to bring in around 12,000 riders per day.

And at the center of it all will be the plaza above the station. Little said there is still debate over what will be put in the plaza, and that it could be any combination of retail space, offices, living spaces and open space.

“We are looking at how can we provide more density here but, at the same time, create a neighborhood that has the kind of retail that people need: the shopping, the business,” Little said.

Growing neighborhoods

Sound Transit spokesperson Bruce Gray said he expects the district to grow. He said that past stations built in the southern portion of the light-rail system have seen immediate and major growth around the stations.

“In the Rainier Valley, we have seen a great deal of development around some of our stations, especially Columbia City,” Gray said. “Further down at Othello Station, there are 300 new units already up and another 400 coming in the future. Development has been slow to come, but we’re happy with the way it’s picking up.”

Gray said the most apt comparison for the University District station might be the new Capitol Hill station currently under construction. That station, at Broadway and East John Street, will also be underground, and there has already been a clamoring for real estate nearby.

“We’re getting ready for five different parcels of land to come up for sale,” Gray said. “The station there is already supporting a lot of new apartments and development happening around Capitol Hill today.”

Dave LaClergue, an urban planner with the Seattle Department of Planning and Development, said that as the Capitol Hill project nears completion, he expects the neighborhood to continue to grow rapidly.

“In the last two years, there have been a ton of residential projects in the neighborhood,” LaClergue said. “We think that development is just going to continue to accelerate. Once it’s really real that the light-rail station is open or close to it, people will want to start moving there.”

Working with UW

According to University District resident Cory Crocker, a coordinator for the project, there are currently three plans being considered for the plaza. These plans have been discussed at length in community meetings, which, Crocker said, has given residents the opportunity to become involved with the project and choose their own public space.

“We’ve been doing mostly outreach in the community: trying to see what kind of space they want, and if they are in support of an idea for simple public space,” Crocker said. “That’s been our main focus for the last year and a half.”

The difference in the plans as they are currently written is in the building that the University of Washington (UW) wants to build on the site. The university owns the rights to the airspace above the station, and it wants to build a UW building on that space. The debate centers on the exact location of the building and whether it will be a tall tower or shorter building that would take more ground space.

As they are currently being constructed, the station’s foundations would not be able to support a tall tower. Thus, if the UDP and UW decide that a tall tower is better than a short one, the foundations of the station will need to be reinforced.

UW director of regional and community relations Theresa Doherty said that no decisions have been made on the space yet, and the UW is still trying to decide a course of action. But she also said that the UW agrees with the chamber that a public space is needed in the U-District.

“This will open up a lot of new opportunities for the University and the U-District,” Doherty said. “We came to an agreement on the need for open space in the district, and we’ve been working on putting it into action. We need to work with the community to see what we need to accomplish, then work together to get that done.”

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